Do you have healthy self-esteem?

by Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC

Many people struggle with what they perceive as “low self-confidence”. However, this term is often used interchangeably with low self-esteem. Since both are important, let’s look at how the two differ.


What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem relates to how one feels about themselves; it is measure of self-regard that cannot be seen by others. People with high self-esteem see themselves as generally good and capable beings. That’s not to say they don’t experience self-doubt and insecurity as much as anyone else. Rather, they are able to maintain a balanced, accurate attitude toward themselves and recognize flaws without negative value judgement.

Self esteem is determined by factors such as:

  • feelings of competence
  • sense of security
  • sense of belonging
  • having realistic expectations of self

What is self-confidence?

Self-confidence, on the other hand, describes the how confident somebody is in their ability or skills. This attitude is projected externally to the outside world.  For instance, professional basketball players project confidence during a game through the demonstration of their skills. People may assume that they have high self-esteem, but what they are really observing is confidence.


How do they impact mental health?

Generally speaking, self-esteem has a greater impact on one’s quality of life and overall well-being. It is what shapes self-image and influences motivation and behavior. Professional athletes can be confident about their ability to play basketball, but if their self-esteem remains low, they still have negative feelings about themselves and believe they are unworthy of their success.

People with low self-esteem may also:

  • put little value on their opinions and ideas
  • focus on their perceived weaknesses and faults
  • believe that others are more capable or successful
  • have difficulty accepting positive feedback
  • fear failure and avoid taking on new challenges


Causes of low self-esteem

As mentioned previously, almost every experiences insecurity and self-doubt to some extent—having a healthy self-esteem does not mean that one is always confident. However, people tend to engage in certain behaviors, either consciously or unconsciously, that exacerbate and perpetuate these insecurities to an extent where they begin to become an internalized belief.


Most people view perfectionism as a generally positive attribute, one that helps them to achieve their goals. However, there is a difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence.

Striving for excellence is about having high standards, desiring success and putting forth discipline to reach goals. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is not about the urge for success but rather the fear of failure. Perfectionism reflects the mindset of “if I never make mistakes, I can protect myself from judgement, blame and guilt”. In this way, people use perfectionism as a shield to protect their self-worth. “If I avoid negative outcomes at all costs, I cannot be perceived as a failure and therefore I will feel worthy”.

The problem with this is that, when people convince themselves that they actually have this type of this type of ultimate control, any criticism or failure they do encounter (which will be inevitable) will only lead to dejection and discouragement.

Let’s take a look at another common trigger for low self-esteem.


Have you ever looked at the people around you and worried that you don’t measure up? This feeling might convince you that despite all that your accomplishments, you could be doing a lot more if you just tried harder. This can trigger of shame and self-doubt, both of which can cause self-esteem to plummet. It’s safe to that if you play the self-comparison game, it’s unlikely that you will ever come out feeling like a winner.


Improving self-esteem

Here is what you need to remember: if you want to accomplish your goals, you need to make peace with failure, insecurity and doubt.  Give yourself permission to forth your best effort and to not be so personally tied to outcomes.  Give yourself permission to stop listening and comparing yourself to people who are in different life circumstances and life stages than you are.

Practice self-compassion

Here are a few simple exercises that can help you foster self-compassion:

  • What would you say to a child?Self-compassion is hard for me” is something I hear from almost all my clients. One of my favorite ways to demonstrate how to be self-compassionate is to have them visualize themselves as a child (or have them visualize their own children). What would you tell this child if they came to you and said “other kids are always better than me…I am so dumb and useless?” One hundred percent of the time, the client will immediately come up with a tender, eloquent and compassionate response. If you think you aren’t “good at self-compassion”, talk to yourself like a child!



  • Mindfulness When feeling anxious, defeated or shameful, ask yourself: What do I observe? What do I feel? What do I need right now? Reflect upon what strategies you have been using to deal with unpleasant thoughts and feelings in the past. Ask yourself honestly if those strategies resulted in less suffering and made the problems go away. Give yourself permission to try the new strategy of accepting yourself in the moment without judgement.
  • Journaling: Reflect upon the day and without censorship or judgement, write down anything that caused you to feel badly. Be sure to include kind words of reassurance or comfort about your experiences such as “this was a really tough day for me and I am feeling emotionally raw. I will be gentle with myself until it subsides.”


Get Support

Strengthening coping skills and self-esteem will foster your ability to tolerate distress and persevere though challenging times. If you feel that you need extra support, seeking mental health treatment can be immensely helpful in providing lasting relief.


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